Before we start, here is a sample of placement panning to create the spatial illusion of an orchestra.
Panning could be thought of as the controlled distribution and manipulation of the sound spectrum. This ultimate aim of enhancing the listening experience is nothing new: as early as the 16th century, Italian composer Giovanni Gabrielli exploited the acoustical distinctiveness of dual balconies of equal heights at the Basilica San Marco di Veneziato in Vienna to maximize the impact of distance in sound and experiment with the congregants hearing different music from their respective right and left sides. Gabrielli recognized an opportunity in the church’s physical anomalies. By splitting up the choir and capitalizing on the peculiar acoustics created by the distance of the opposing choir lofts, various echo effects were created resulting in an archaic version of what we now refer to as the stereo effect. Historically, this musical landmark would be known as the birth of polychoral motets associated with the Venetian Church and is possibly the earliest documented example of experimentation with composition and sound design.
It would be well over 400 years before the idea of spatial distribution would see its next critical landmark. Many audiophiles find the isolation and placement of individual instruments to specific channels in the mix to be uniquely conducive to the 1960’s. This association is linked directly to a company called Audio Fidelity that released the first stereophonic album in 1957. Prior to this technology, albums were produced on single channels (monaural). The advent of this technology would touch nearly every studio within a span of a decade, inevitably changing the modern listening experience.
This rapid change in recording technology would be bumpy at first: stereo placement was initially limited to the conception of its users. Many early recordings had simply placed the drums on the left side of the mix and the music on the right, including recording pioneers, The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band original versions reflect vocals on the left and the remaining instrumentation on the right). It would be some time before this traditional stereo mix (or variations thereof) would reflect the movement of the drums and bass to the center of a stereo mix and how we now hear virtually all modern recordings. Try listening to the earlier Black Sabbath Album, Paranoid, in which the bass is panned entirely to the left speaker and the guitar entirely to the right. Many audiophiles can find the original panning techniques to be almost disorienting. Another example of hard panning, where the drums are entirely on the right channel, is the Led Zeppelin I album on songs “Good Times, Bad Times” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.”
Incorporating panning techniques into every day mixes can create a more nuanced and professional sound. Utilizing the perception of depth can really open your mix and allow you more room. Exploring the opportunities of the this extra space available in your mix is delicate, but incredibly helpful in humanizing tracks built by one person, especially if you do not have any “live” instruments in the mix. I have found the following strategies useful regarding the development of my own creative panning skills:
- Less is more. Panning is not necessarily about hard left and hard right; there is plenty of room in between.
- Understand why are you panning the instruments the way you are. I have found one solid strategy for panning a band or small group is considering your mix from a “drummers perspective.” This can actually make the listening experience more intimate for the listener, as if they are a part of the group. This means you are listening as if you are the drummer and your kick and snare drum will most likely be dead center in the mix, while the toms will be adjusted from left to right (from high pitch to low pitch).
- Conversely, many producers like to adjust the panning to be an exact reflection of what they are viewing, as this mimics what you would be hearing aurally in a venue. This is the way to pan instruments when scoring for film projects or video game projects that require the use or illusion of an orchestra. Understanding the layout of the orchestra and providing the depth of instrumentation through panning techniques is crucial to capture authenticity. Analyze what instruments you are scoring for and where they are housed in a traditional orchestra. Providing a field of depth in your mix can improve it and sometimes mask patches that sound more synthetic. Careful consideration with reverb allows you to adjust for depth and often requires sending each instrument to a different bus that manages an overall reverb. This will help in achieving the illusion of an orchestra as a single cohesive unit and not tax your operating system by having multiple reverb plugins for each instrument. Imagine yourself in a concert hall, the farther away from the orchestra the less defined each individual instrument will become. The closer the vantage point, the more obvious you would define the horizontal positioning of the instruments in the mix; this is a useful tool for scoring for a smaller ensemble.
- Listen! Listen! Listen! We can learn a lot from other recordings, even if they aren’t in the genre we mix in or necessarily even prefer. A big turning point for me was hearing Margerine Eclipse by Stereolab. This group took panning to a whole new level by assigning (and isolating) each instrument to a specific channel. Imagine creating three albums in one: their dual mono mix intentionally allows the listener this option by listening to both sides at once or covering up one headphone or the other and hearing an entirely different version of each track. Artists like Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails have also used panning as an effect. In panning a lone voice hard right, Reznor is able to simulate whispering directly in the listeners ear.